If you go down to the woods today… Hitler's bunker blooms again

The Nazi leader's wartime nerve centre in a Polish forest is to become a museum

Tony Paterson
Thursday 20 September 2012 11:57
Hitler surveys the damage after the assassination attempt
Hitler surveys the damage after the assassination attempt

The ruined bunker complex set deep in the forests of Poland's north east was once the nerve centre of Adolf Hitler's war machine. More recently, giggling tourists play paintball and pose for photographs in Nazi uniforms at the site which critics have dubbed a "grotesque Disneyland".

But now, 68 years after German troops dynamited much of Hitler's so-called "Wolf's Lair" before fleeing the advancing Soviet Red Army, Poland has announced plans to renovate the 600-acre complex and turn it into a key historical and educational centre containing outdoor exhibits and a museum.

The project has been initiated by Poland's Ministry of Culture and National Heritage which has granted a new lease for the "Wolf's Lair" under the strict proviso that the private company running the site fulfils an educational objective and drops its present fun park image.

"At this moment, one does not feel the tragic dimension of this place," said Tomasz Chincinski, a historian working on the project. "We need to work on new ways of telling history, to make young generations want to learn it and understand it," he told The New York Times.

Hitler had the "Wolf's Lair" built as his Eastern front headquarters in what was then East Prussia, and used it to co-ordinate the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The compound was a heavily guarded complex of 200 buildings and concrete bunkers complete with its own power plant and staff of 2,000 military personnel.

Those who worked there complained of boredom, freezing winters and summers plagued by swarms of mosquitoes.

Four months before German troops blew up many of the buildings in the compound in the face of the Red Army's advance, the "Wolf's Lair" was the scene of the abortive attempt to assassinate Hitler. The German army officer Claus von Stauffenberg detonated a briefcase bomb which failed to kill the Nazi leader while he was attending a staff meeting on 20 July, 1944. Von Stauffenberg was caught and executed along with many other plotters immediately afterwards.

Poland's post war communist regime opened the site for visitors but did little more to inform them of its history than display wartime photographs of the complex. After communism's collapse, Poland's new democratic authorities leased out the complex to a private company called Wolf's Nest, which tried to exploit its tourist potential.

The company turned some of the bunkers into a restaurant and hotel and opened an indoor shooting range in the offices used by General Alfred Jodl, the Nazi army commander sentenced to death at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The Polish historian Jan Oldakowski described the complex as a "grotesque Disneyland".

Today, although some paths have been cleared through the undergrowth, most of the "Wolf's Lair" is in disrepair. Its concrete bunkers are in ruins and covered in carpets of thick moss. "The biggest change here over the past decade has been the introduction of a cash machine," said Lukasz Joachymek, a freelance tour guide at the site.

The "Wolf's Lair" owes its new lease of life to the end of an ownership dispute which has left it firmly in the hands of the Polish Forestry Service. "It took years before the matter was settled. Before that, we could not think about investing," said Jan Zaluska, the director of Wolf's Nest, whose company has now agreed to work together with historians and meet the government's educational requirements for the site.

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